Elijah – a Community Talk

  • Bible references: 1 Kings chapter 17 verses 1-7, chapter 18 verses 1- 19

    Elijah’s name means literally The LORD is God. ‘El’ meaning God in the descriptive sense and Jah, being part of Yahweh or Jahweh, the revealed name of God that is always translated into little capital letters in the Old Testament as The LORD.

    Elijah’s name leaves you in no doubt where he stands, but his name, The LORD is God, went against the grain in Israel at that time. King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel were suppressing worship of Yahweh and promoting the worship of ‘Baal’ instead. Ahab (regarded as one of the more evil kings of Israel) had married Jezebel from the city of Tyre and Jezebel brought the worship of ‘Baal’ into Israel. In this case, ‘Baal’ was the Phoenician weather god Melqart.

    Elijah dares to speak out to the King. This was an act of extreme boldness. The King’s rule was absolute. To tell the King off was unheard of. People would think you had lost your head. Or, that you were about to.

    Except of course Ahab’s rule wasn’t absolute. Elijah reminds him of that. His comment to Ahab comes out of the blue and then he disappears. If Baal – the weather God – had any kind of reality, then this was a direct challenge to him. Could Baal make it rain? No. When Elijah returns to Israel, he issues another ultimatum and then goes to Carmel, the centre of Baal worship.

    There are some key points here. When the priests of Baal start their rituals, characterised by dancing and yelling and cutting themselves, Elijah is in a vulnerable position. He has basically challenged the followers of a weather God to produce fire from heaven. Now he knows that their best efforts have failed to produce rain, but again this is a showdown where Baal could turn up. That’s the risk he’s running.

    But Baal doesn’t show. Elijah wants to know why. ‘Where is he?’ He asks, then he starts making suggestions. ‘Perhaps he’s deaf? Perhaps you should shout louder!’ It seems Elijah goes out of his way to antagonise his opponents. He’s on their turf, he’s outnumbered, the King hates him and he is deliberately and brilliantly offensive. It’s often hard to tell the difference between supreme self-confidence and a self-destructive determination – I think perhaps Elijah had a bit of both.

    Eventually it’s Elijah’s turn. He orders his sacrifice to be soaked in water. This is after three long years of drought. Water is incredibly precious and you can imagine the crowd’s reaction to all that water being wasted. Elijah has annoyed the King, insulted the priests, and now he has alienated the crowd that had gathered as well.

    Elijah prays a simple prayer. No dancing, shouting, or cutting for him. And we know what happens next. Boom! Fire from Heaven!

    This was a dramatic encounter with God, but I find the next part of the story is the most arresting. Elijah is branded an outlaw and he runs into the wilderness to Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb). On the way, everything catches up with him. He is exhausted, physically and mentally and he feels like he cannot take any more. At that moment he lies down under a tree and wishes he was dead.

    When he gets to Sinai he hides out in a cave and he hears God. You can sense the gentleness of that whisper, like a breath over the mountain, ‘What are you dong here, Elijah?

    Elijah’s answer: ‘I’m hiding. I’m the last one left. They’re trying to kill me.

    The truthfulness of this tale is seen here in Elijah clearly suffering from a major mood swing. He is recklessly bold on Carmel and achieves something amazing and yet the very next minute he is totally overcome by pessimism and gloom. Nowadays we would classify him as a manic-depressive. One minute he’s manic, uncontrollable, full of energy, a man of action. The next he’s slumped under a tree or hiding away in a cave and he has no hope for the future or any belief in his calling. The ‘peak’ has immediately been followed by a ‘trough’.

    What Elijah had suffered from most was a loss of perspective. He had allowed the threats of Jezebel to get to him. He had allowed the situation to trap him. What God said to him was ‘What situation? What situation is so big that I, the LORD, can’t handle it?

    God gives Elijah a wake-up call. ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ He says. ‘You’ll anoint this guy and that guy and get an assistant and no-one’s going to kill you. You’re not alone. There are thousands of people who have stuck up for me and I’m going to look out for them just as I am going to look out for you.

    I think there is a crucial message in all this. It might not apply to everybody, but I think it applies to many. Firstly the big comedown after the big showdown can happen to anyone. If you have been in a situation where God has acted in a mighty way, but now feel that you’re hiding in a cave, then it’s time to sort that out. It might be that God will tell you exactly what will happen next, or it might be that you just need to rediscover God’s perspective on your situation.

    That’s the second point to draw from this. Elijah felt that everything was hopeless. But how Elijah felt was NOT how the situation was. He was not the only one left who worshipped Yahweh. Jezebel wasn’t going to get her way and eliminate him and all traces of belief in the LORD.

    This is a really big concept to float in our post-modern, incredibly subjective world. It’s not a very common idea any more, but how we perceive a thing and what that thing is, in its intrinsic self, can be quite different. It can be the same with situations.

    And there’s the wake up call for Elijah. Suddenly he realises that how he regards the situation isn’t exactly how the situation is in reality. His perception and what is really going on are in two different places.

    In a sense Elijah did the right thing. He ran away from Carmel, the mountain of Baal to Sinai, the mountain of God. He met God there and God helped him refocus his perspective. With God there is always an opportunity for people to see things how they really are. That might mean their situation, their relationship with God or with another person, their role in their Christian community. I think there are some people who have metaphorically stood on Carmel and seen God act powerfully, but since then have sunk deep into a trough of despondency in their life.

    The question I think God wants to ask people is ‘What are you doing here?’ Consider where you are in your life, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what call has been placed on you.

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